Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures

First Advisor

Rebecca Stern


My dissertation examines the importance of social capital in British marriage plots. While most people imagine heroines of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels embody virtue, I argue that many of the most innocent heroines speculate that sacrificing good assets can produce better marriages. These marriage plots demonstrate that a heroine's reputation must be somewhat damaged before she receives her reward of marriage. In other words, these novels do not uniformly represent, or recommend, the preservation of a heroine's good reputation; rather, they implicitly suggest that some spoiling occur before the consummation of marriage. I study how this curious freckling of heroines' reputations is desirable and financially advantageous.

My first two chapters discuss how depreciated reputations become eroticized in early marriage plots including Pamela and Northanger Abbey. I focus on heroines who damage their reputations through flirtation, and I use Pierre Bourdieu's and Georg Simmel's theories to analyze social behaviors and the relationship between flirtation and value accretion, respectively. While early marriage plots often assume that a man who proposes to a woman with low social capital possesses a selfless love, by the Victorian period novels such as Jane Eyre and Daniel Deronda are more suspicious of men who desire to marry their social inferiors as well as more critical of the eroticization of feminine vulnerability. In my third chapter on Victorian novels, I connect society's growing awareness of marital abuse to fictional investigations of how loneliness renders women both appealing and especially susceptible to dangerous suitors. My fourth chapter considers the particularly troublesome capital that celebrity offers women, and I discuss the lives of real celebrities, such as Queen Victoria, and offer a reading of Trollope's Miss Mackenzie. My dissertation concludes by exploring how the patterns in established marriage plots survive in popular culture phenomena such as Downton Abbey.

This dissertation contributes to the critical conversation in three ways. First, my claim that the heroine's speculation of social capital is characteristic of the marriage plot is one that brings novels into contact with the credit economy of their time. Although standards for modesty prevent women's speculations from being clearly viewed, they were important players in non-monetary exchanges. Secondly, this project highlights a unique period during which women undergo a trial of solitude that prepares them for an affective marriage (or indicates their readiness for that state). While this period of social exile has deathly connotations, the possibility of future happiness imbues even this dark phase with a certain pleasure, especially for readers. Lastly, this project brings a new focus to the significance of flirtation in British fiction and develops our understanding of the history of desire. While many scholars have written on fallen women and unrelenting flirts, there has been less interest in the flirtation of heroines who are not ultimately condemned. Old models of femininity create a space for play, romantic gambling, and even slightly bad behavior that can harm a woman's reputation. Thus, the concept of erotic femininity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not simply virtuously staid but flawed, daring, and lively.


© 2013, Catherine Clair England-Plisiewicz